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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 February 2019

Culture is our way of building bridges between civilisations

Pope Francis's visit is recognition of the UAE's commitment to fostering dialogue across borders

Sufi poet Rumi’s ‘Human Being’ performed as part of Abu Dhabi Festival / Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival
Sufi poet Rumi’s ‘Human Being’ performed as part of Abu Dhabi Festival / Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival

Peace and prosperity is the sweetest fruit of all and at its source is tolerance. The declaration of 2019 as the Year of Tolerance makes perfect sense coming on the heels of the Year of Zayed, as it is testament to the Founding Father’s belief in the culture of understanding and inclusion as the most powerful remedy to counter global prejudice, hatred, extremism and violence.

Tolerance is critical in ensuring a peaceful co-existence among increasingly diverse communities. The mutual respect that results in diversity has become a pillar of our society and one of the greatest achievements of our young country. As Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, once said, the UAE and tolerance are "two sides of the same coin”. Tolerance offers a space for peace and dialogue in a nation where some 200 nationalities live side by side in harmony and togetherness.

Yet tolerance is far from being a given. It might be easy to embrace in theory but far harder to implement practically. It is hard work. The easier path to take is that of bigotry, suspicion of the other, enmity and exclusion. This is why conflict, misunderstanding and acrimony seem to rule in the world today.

Indeed, tolerance is a leap of faith towards all that is good in human nature. It is a refusal to be frozen by fear of the “other” and an understanding that diversity is not a threat to who we are. It is a decision to be curious about differences while looking for common ground.

Like many other cultures, the Arab and Islamic world has a long tradition of thinkers and leaders who had the audacity to embrace tolerance. When the Emir Abdelkader saved thousands of Christians from certain death in Damascus in the 19th century, he was asked how he, a Muslim, could raise arms against other Muslims to save Christians. He famously answered that he was specifically doing his duty as a Muslim in saving those Christians.

History provides us with many examples of religions and civilisations colliding in aggression and conflict. But neither are inevitable nor necessary. Conflict, aggression and intolerance are a decision. There can be no “clash of civilisations” unless those civilisations choose to clash. From Sultan Salah Eddine Al Ayoubi to Martin Luther King, from Nelson Mandela to Sheikh Zayed, those who demonstrated togetherness as a way forward set the standard and encouraged us to follow their example. In the UAE, this is evident in the creation of a Ministry of Tolerance, the first of its kind in the world.

The Year of Tolerance is a fitting theme for a cultural organisation such as Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, as we celebrate the diversity that is the cornerstone of the union of our great nation. We have chosen to invest, as Sheikh Zayed did, in the fabric of culture – in artists, in youth, and in the creative spirit.

In its commitment to establish strong foundations for a peaceful co-existence, the UAE is to welcome Pope Francis next week, at the invitation of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, for the first time ever in the Arabian Gulf. Sheikh Mohamed stressed “that nations built on values of tolerance, love and respect achieve lasting peace”. This is a crucial step in putting that policy into practice.

As Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the UAE’s Minister of Tolerance said: “Pope Francis will be visiting a nation that has learned the instrumental value of tolerance…where our remarkably diverse population resides in peaceful and productive harmony, sheltered by a spirit of respect and empathy.”

We at Admaf have been firsthand witnesses to all that culture can achieve in terms of tolerance, understanding and co-existence. At any given show, what we enjoy is far more than a first-class performance. It is an ongoing conversation between those onstage and the audience, because culture is the very essence of tolerance.

This year, the flags of 17 nations will be raised on the Abu Dhabi Festival stage, including those of France, the US, the UK, Tunisia, Russia, Lebanon, Syria, Germany, Palestine, Spain, Italy, Latvia and Liechtenstein. We are also set to host artists from around the globe. In this celebration of global cultures, the festival – like the country itself – acts as a dialogue between civilisations, building bridges between artists, intellectuals, innovators and audiences. In doing so, it sends a message of love and peace from the UAE to the world; a message that says we are people committed to fostering creativity and openness, and promoting connections that bring individuals together as brothers and sisters bound by humanity. The festival is our way of saying to world: our Abu Dhabi, our home, for all. So welcome, Pope Francis, to your home.

Huda Alkhamis-Kanoo is founder of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation and artistic director of the Abu Dhabi Festival

Updated: January 29, 2019 07:05 PM

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